With Election Day just over a week away, President Donald Trump’s odds are looking grim.
In national polling averages, Joe Biden led by 9.2 percentage points as of the evening of Oct. 25. Traditionally red states like Georgia and Arizona have turned into fierce campaign battlegrounds. Biden signaled his confidence in a tweet on Oct. 19, telling his supporters “let’s finish strong” while Trump publicly mused about the likelihood of his defeat at a campaign rally just days earlier.
But while polling averages may drive the Biden camp to prophesize victory, voters should be aware that Trump still has a shot at winning the 2020 presidential election. Political analysis website FiveThirtyEight estimated the president’s chances of winning on Oct. 23 as “a little worse than the chances of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die and a little better than the chances that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles.” If you’re like me, you’ll be compulsively rolling your own dice at home and checking the LA forecast for the next nine days.
So what should you expect to see on Election Day? First, the election may not be decided by Nov. 3. Given the increase in mail-in voting due to the coronavirus pandemic, some states likely won’t have a clear winner until days after the election.
Many states have already started to pre-process their ballots, which includes removing ballots from their envelopes, checking required signatures and preparing them to be counted. However, a few states are legally required to wait until the day of the election to start pre-processing early ballots regardless of how many are received — thus raising the very real possibility that we may not know who won those states on Nov. 3.
Research conducted by the Pew Research Center suggested that Democrats will vote more by mail than Republican voters in this election. This has led some to predict a “red mirage” in states that don’t process mail-in ballots until Election Day.
The “red mirage” phenomenon occurs when a state appears red for the majority of election night as Republicans vote en masse that day, then flips to blue after the pile of theoretically Democrat-leaning mail-in ballots are counted.
Michael S. Rocca, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico, told the Daily Lobo that while the “red mirage” is somewhat accurate in theory, he doesn’t expect the more drastic effects some analysts, like Hawkfish, are anticipating.
Hawkfish, a data analysis company founded by ultra-billionaire and former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg, has modeled a scenario in which Trump initially appeared to win 408 electoral votes before ultimately losing the election after mail-in ballots were counted.
“The more likely scenario is that the election will probably be tight or in Biden’s favor going into election night, and then perhaps — based on statistical modeling that we’ve seen and polling — just slightly edging toward Biden as it gets later and later into the night,” Rocca said.
Another factor is states’ cutoff dates for accepting mail-in ballots. According to a state-by-state timeline of mail-in ballot processing created by the New York Times, Wisconsin set its deadline to receive mail-in ballots on the same day as the election, while Pennsylvania will count ballots received up until Nov. 6 so long as they are postmarked on or before Election Day. Other battleground states such as Ohio will count ballots that arrive up until Nov. 13, provided they too are postmarked on or before Nov. 3.
States that start processing ballots prior to Election Day also do so at varying times, further muddying the vote counting waters. Key toss-up states like Florida, North Carolina and Georgia allow ballots to be pre-processed as early as September, and Ohio began pre-processing in early October.
These four eastern states are what to watch on election night. All are unpredictable this year, and each carries double-digit electoral votes for a combined total of 78. This makes them invaluable in the race to garner the necessary 270 electoral votes nationwide to win the presidential election.
That group of states should prove to be a litmus test for the rest of the election, as they’re the first states to close their respective polls because of their Eastern time zone location and early processing of mail-in ballots. If Biden wins Florida and at least two of the remaining three states, he would likely secure the presidency regardless of the results in other swing states.
“Come election night, if you see North Carolina and Georgia as too close to call, then we know Biden has a real good chance,” Rocca said. “These are red states — these are states that should be going toward the Republican presidential candidate and probably should be called pretty early in a typical year.”
Texas, another traditionally Republican stronghold, has slipped into the lean-red category. While Trump is still likely to win in the state, an upset isn’t impossible: FiveThirtyEight estimated Biden’s chances of turning the state blue at 38% as of Oct. 25.
Defeat in Texas would all but spell doom for Trump’s chances, as the state carries 38 electoral votes, the largest amount of any state except California (55).
Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania are also states Rocca said will heavily influence the race. Trump won all three states in 2016, but this year they lean more toward Biden. None of the states allow for state-wide pre-processing of mail-in ballots, with Michigan only allowing some populous cities to begin processing the day before the election, meaning these states may not be as easy to call on election night and have the most chance of raising the specter of the “red mirage.”
“There is a possibility that we just don’t have an answer for a couple days, or three days,” Rocca told the Daily Lobo, adding that there is also a good chance that close election results will be challenged in court.
“We need to be patient … Our institutions are strong, and they’re built to withstand these sorts of things,” Rocca said.
Liam DeBonis is the photo editor at the Daily Lobo. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @LiamDeBonis